A visit to Mary Ellen Mark's photo workshop
“My father was a photographer,” Alaskan photographer Patrice Helmar tells me while we look at the photos she took at Mary Ellen Mark’s workshop. “He was like a visual anthropologist. He had a camera store where I was brought up, working in the shop. He was primarily a portrait photographer, yet also a photojournalist, so he kind of did it all. And I learned from him and the first cameras that I shot with were kind of broken, from the shop. They came from rich people who couldn’t clean their cameras.”
PHOTOGRAPHER WITHOUT A CAUSE
Looking at Patrice’s photos, Reykjavík youth seen through Alaskan eyes, I get the feeling I’m seeing stills from one of those raw and honest teen films I love, like ‘Fucking Åmål,’ ‘Donnie Darko’ or ‘Dazed & Confused.’ They have the same honesty and intimacy about them, which echoes the reasons she wanted to learn from Mary: “Mary Ellen Mark was one of the first female photographers that I saw,” she says. “My dad had one of her books at the shop, and I just loved how she captures real moments of daily life in a beautiful way and the essence of people in a patient and kind way. I think my father did that too. I feel she is one of the best living photographers and I was really motivated to come here, to learn from her; I feel if you want to learn, you should learn from the best people,” she says. “It was tough. I’m not rich. I worked a lot, but I think it’s worth it to be here.”
Unlike some of the other students, she didn’t have a particular assignment beforehand. “My plan was to work as hard as I possibly could and to get as many portraits and pictures as possible of people living here,” she explains. “As an outsider I have a different perspective, so for two weeks I busted my arse and tried to get the best pictures I could. And the teachers [Mark and Icelandic photographer Einar Falur Ingólfsson] were really incredible about telling me to get closer, telling me how to frame the shots. They’re just excellent editors, and it was very helpful to have someone to telling you what to focus on, what to look for.”
Patrice says that she is most comfortable shooting on the street, stressing that it’s important as a photographer to get to know the subjects. “I try to build some sort of relationship with the people I photograph. I follow these people around for about a week and a half,” she says pointing at one of the pictures, which exemplifies how photography can be both the art of patience and the art of luck. “These were very interesting. I just met them by chance. And this guy was going to a hospital; he was drunk and bleeding. I was out all night long. This one was from a restroom at a bar,” she says and praises her subjects: “Icelanders are really friendly.”
When she returns to Alaska, Patrice is going to get her MFA. “But it’s really difficult to make a living doing art full-time so I bartend and I teach and take portraits and photograph weddings—whatever it takes to support the art I feel compelled to make.”
“SOME OF THEM HATED ME OF COURSE”
I’ve been chasing Mary Ellen Mark for a couple of hours, between chatting with other students and guests, many of them Icelandic photographers I’ve worked with in the past. When I finally get her to sit down for a few minutes she is exhausted, but happy. “The work was great. It was a great class. I hope we can do it again, but we must find some way to subsidise it. We just squeezed this one through. The tourist department and the cultural department must help. We can bring in a lot of tourists and photographers who want to come, but we have to have some help from Iceland,” she says.
“Definitely in this class, everybody did great work. Some were more advanced as photographers than others, they continued what they had been doing and they did beautiful work. Some people were beginners, but they did great work and you would never know that they were beginners. Midway through, some of them hated me, of course; they thought I was a bitch, treating them like slaves, but they ended up taking great pictures and that’s what it’s all about—if I were easy, I wouldn’t be a good teacher.”
You can see more of Patrice Helmar’s work on her website at www.patricehelmar.com
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